In the 1960s, it was Nasser's Egyptian army against the Saudi-backed "Royalists." Now it is apparently Iran against Saudi Arabia.
From The New York Times:
Yemen Seizes Sailboat Filled With Weapons, and U.S. Points to Iran
WASHINGTON — The authorities in Yemen have seized a boat in their territorial waters filled with a large quantity of explosives, weapons and money, according to American officials briefed on the interdiction. The officials said Monday that there were indications that Iran was smuggling the military contraband to insurgents inside Yemen, although they declined to provide details.
Yemeni security forces halted and searched the sailboat, a 130-foot dhow, last Tuesday and found the weapons in three large cargo rooms in the hold, according to reports on the mission reaching Washington. There was American support for the interdiction, officials said.
The government of Yemen confirmed the seizure Monday in an official statement. The captured weapons included surface-to-air missiles used to shoot down civilian and military aircraft, C4 military-grade explosives, 122-millimeter shells, rocket-propelled grenades and bomb-making equipment, including electronic circuits, remote triggers and other hand-held explosives, the statement said.
If the weapons turn out to be the Iranian-made Misagh-2, as cited in the reports from Yemen, it would reflect a significant increase in lethality for the insurgents. Yemen is already awash with small arms and explosives acquired over years of war and insurgency, much of it brought in from a number of foreign sources through its poorly controlled ports. There has been little effort to regulate the supply — one governor of a northern province is also a major arms dealer — and insurgents have often raided the stores of Yemen’s corrupt and divided military. Many of Yemen’s unruly tribes command powerful arsenals.
The United States has a publicly acknowledged security assistance effort under way with Yemen. At the same time, the American military and the C.I.A. are engaged in a clandestine program of using drones to strike militants associated with a terrorist organization, Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, based in Yemen.
With the United States and Saudi Arabia providing both public and secret security assistance there, and with Iran also said to be arming militant forces, Yemen has become the battlefield for a major proxy war by outside powers.
American officials said the weapons on board were made in Iran, and that the pattern of the shipment matched past instances of suspected Iranian smuggling into Yemen. Officials described the smuggling as part of a plan by Iran to increase its political outreach to rebels and other political figures in Yemen. To identify with greater certainty the source of the seized weapons, the boat’s navigation instruments will most likely be examined to determine its origin and route, and the crew will be questioned.
For years, Yemen has accused Iran of supporting the Houthi rebels, who fought an intermittent guerrilla war against the Yemeni government from 2004 to 2010. Those accusations — including claims of intercepted weapons shipments — often lacked evidence and, up until about a year ago, routinely were dismissed as propaganda.
But after the uprising in Yemen in 2011, the Houthi movement expanded from its base in the northwest — now a de facto Houthi statelet — across the country. It has benefited from widespread dissatisfaction with both Yemen’s government and the local equivalent of the Muslim Brotherhood, known as Islah.
By last spring, American military and intelligence officials described what they viewed as a widening effort to extend Iranian influence across the greater Middle East. Iranian smugglers backed by the Quds Force, an elite international operations unit within Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, had begun shipping AK-47s, rocket-propelled grenades and other arms to replace older weapons used by the rebels, American officials said last year.
Senior officials briefed on the mission said that the Yemeni Coast Guard had conducted the operation jointly with American military forces. An American boarding party from the Navy destroyer Farragut accompanied the Yemeni Coast Guard crew as it interdicted, boarded, inspected and seized the vessel, according to officials.
American intelligence played a role in the seizure, most importantly in pinpointing the vessel from among the large numbers of traditional fishing and cargo boats sailing in and out of Yemeni waters. Officials declined to describe the intelligence that identified the vessel, except to say that various standard techniques, like human intelligence, overhead surveillance and communications analysis, went into the effort.
This interdiction comes at an extremely delicate time in Yemen, with the government largely paralyzed, sectarian tensions rising and accusations of Iranian interference — which have long been used as a propaganda tool here — on the increase.
Iran is also accused of supporting the secessionist movement in southern Yemen, which has also held vast public rallies in recent days and now poses a serious threat to the Yemeni government. The most prominent television station in southern Yemen, Aden Live, is run by a Yemeni political figure who has acknowledged receiving funding from Iran.
Iran’s goal in supporting these rebellious political currents, the critics say, is to foster a chaotic environment and weak state where it can maintain influence through its allies, much as it does in Lebanon.
But analysts caution that such accusations have long been a staple of political discourse in the Gulf, where Sunni governments use them to marshal old sectarian animosities against Shiites in Iran and elsewhere.
Bernard Haykel, a professor at Princeton University and an expert on Yemen, said Iran was being “opportunistic” in its support for the Houthis and was trying to counteract the American and Saudi support for Yemen’s government. But Tehran is hardly controlling the group in Yemen, he said.
“Iranians want to needle the Saudis in every possible way,” Professor Haykel said. “But to say that the Houthi are proxies of Iran is stretching the boundaries of credibility.”
Yemeni and American national security interests also are challenged by Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, a Sunni-based terrorist organization that has specialized in finding creative and deadly ways to smuggle explosives aboard passenger and cargo airplanes.
Although the Houthis have gained Sunni adherents, they clearly draw inspiration from Hezbollah, the Shiite movement in Lebanon that Iran helped found and continues to support. The Houthi leaders are Zaydis, a branch of Shiism that is close to Sunni Islam, but have long complained of discrimination by hard-line Sunni Islamists in Yemen and in neighboring Saudi Arabia, who tend to view all non-Sunnis as heretics.
Sectarian animosities were virtually nonexistent in Yemen until recent years, in part because Zaydis, who compose perhaps a quarter of the population, are theologically close to Sunnis. [wasn't Saudi support for some Shi'a explicable not because of some supposed theological closeness, but because the Saudis were prepared to back anyone against those they thought of as "Marxists" (secularists, Nasserites), as they did the people in South Yemen?
] But the spread of hard-line Salafi religion from neighboring Saudi Arabia, starting in the 1980s, has fostered a corresponding militancy among many Zaydis in Yemen.